How To Use Reverb To Create Depth

Reverb is one of the trickiest things to get right in a mix in my opinion. As I had stated in a previous article, this is one area where you can really notice amateur use of a tool when you hear it. A typical amateur Reverb sounds very “tacked on” as I had previously stated. Often this is the result of just using the stock setting for the Reverb and making no adjustments to it. Also, many times Reverb is used in situations where a combination of delay and Reverb would be more practical. We will talk more about that later on. First let’s talk about just the basic use of Reverb.

How To Use Reverb On Vocals

Listen to the video below for a peek into how I use reverb on vocals

Just about every DAW comes with some stock Reverb. Of course, there are some really good third-party options for Reverb and we will talk about those later but let’s just talk about using the stock setup you have with your Daw currently. Reverb is probably best broken down into categories.

I would say the main three categories are room, Hall, and chamber. Of course, there are those who will argue that there are more categories are reverb but let’s just stick with these three for the sake of simplicity, shall we. Reverb is typically either an algorithmic representation of what natural reverb sounds like or it is an actual recording of a room played back in real time by a particular type of reverb generator called a convolution generator. Some will argue that the algorithmic reverb actually sounds more realistic compared to what reverb should sound like.

When we say should sound like, this requires a little bit of historical background to get a frame of reference. Historically, reverb was produced by two methods when it was first conceived. A third came along later which we will talk about as well. The first two types of reverb were plate and spring. What came along later was what was called chamber reverb. Chamber Reverb was the domain of very expensive recording studios in many cases.

The studios would build an underground concrete chamber which they would pump the signal into through a long cable into a speaker that was placed in one end of the chamber. A microphone was placed at the other end of the chamber which would pick up the signal from the speaker and push it back through to the recording studio console. This created a very unique type of Reverb that was heard on a lot of traditional recordings. Samples of these chambers are available today in your modern DAW. Take a look for them, you will see them.

Plate reverb was produced by a metal plate suspended in a box frame. The signal was fed into the plate which caused a subtle vibration in the plate which created the illusion of a reverb type effect. It’s a classic sound that was used on many older recordings in the 60’s , 70’s and even the 80’s when digital reverb came on the scene.

In 1957 a German company called EMT (Elektromesstecknik) made the first breakthrough in plate Reverb. The EMT 250 was the first in its field. When I was first learning recording techniques at Fanshawe College, we had an EMT plate Reverb. It was a massive unit weighing over 500 lb that occupied its own room off to the side of the recording control room. It had to be patched into the signal through a patchbay and you can only use it on one instrument unless you decided to record it as part of the signal during the recording process. A bit of a dangerous game in my opinion since you can’t get rid of the signal after the fact once you’ve committed to it.

There are many convolution based replications of this classic plate Reverb available today. Cubase, my weapon of choice, has a convolution generator that has a couple of samples of this old EMT plate in it. Not bad, but nothing like the real thing from my memory.

There are those who will drone on constantly about how great these old tools were and how crummy their modern counterparts in the digital world are but I will still take the digital world over the old world simply because I have no access to the old world due to cost. I like to keep reminding my listeners of this because it’s easy to get sucked into one of these conversations and feel that the tools that you have are somehow inferior.

It creates a mental block that suggests that we are incapable of ever getting a good mix because of the tools we have. This is nonsense and you need to put it out of your mind on a regular basis. I enjoy the Gearslutz form as much as anybody but this is one of the places you will hear a lot of this kind of talk and I’m just for arming you to put it out of your mind now and get busy learning how to use the tools that you have instead of wishing for the tools that you will never have.

The other Reverb that I spoke of, spring reverb, was also a fixture when I was first learning to record. The college or I took my recording course head in AKG spring reverb as well. It wasn’t near as popular as the Plate Reverb but it definitely had its own unique sound. A lot of people swear by spring reverb on guitar. Now I wouldn’t go using spring reverb on a heavy metal guitar in a really dense mix but it does have its place. In recordings that have a lot of space between the instruments such as 50s rhythm and blues recordings where you have a basic drums, one guitar, bass, and a single vocal. This affords a lot of open space that can be filled in with reverb.

If you listen to one of these recordings you will often hear a consistent theme. The vocals will have a very short slap delay, the guitar will have a spring reverb and the drums will have the natural sound of the studio room as ambiance. By using Reverb in this manner it fills in some of the space in between the sound and gives it a sense of depth and a sense of fullness. It also makes it sound more natural to the ear even though these various different reverb elements would never be heard in the real world at the same time on individual sounds.

This brings up an interesting point about how “illusion” is created in mixing. As I had just stated, you can literally have completely disparate types of ambient elements operating at the same time in a mix and this somehow appears completely natural to the listener even though historically their brain was never designed to hear these elements in the same setting for the most part.

There are exceptions mind you. I imagine that if I were standing at the top of a canyon and I was also standing at the mouth of a cave facing out to that canyon and I yelled really loud or clapped really loud I would hear the short hollow sound of the cave walls on one side of me and the long-reverberating decay of the canyon on the other. So I guess there are historical precedents for hearing different types of delay and reverb effects simultaneously after all.

There are really two general categories of application for Reverb. The first application is as an effect. The second is to change the positioning, or I should save percieved position of an instrument element in a mix. By applying reverb to an instrument pay attention to what is actually happening when doing so. Try this experiment. Take a dry signal on its own like a person speaking or a vocal and apply some Reverb to it. Then switch the signal on and off periodically and listen to How it pushes the signal farther away and closer.

This is an example of using reverb to move instruments forward and back in the mix. By applying reverb subtly in this way you can create the sense that an instrument is farther away or closer to the listener without actually hearing the reverb itself.

Instead of having that amateur glued on effect you create a very professional depth positioning of instruments in the mix. By combining reverb elements in a mix with some dry elements in a mix you can really enhance this effect. You will often notice that guitars are a dry element in a mix particularly if the mix is really busy. Take notice of this. Go and listen to a few of your favorite songs with heavy guitar in it and notice how the guitar seems to be very close to the ear yet things like the snare drum seem to be tacked to the back wall of the room.

This is very common and we don’t necessarily take conscious notice of it until someone points it out to us. Now that you are aware of it you will start to hear these depth elements everywhere you go in real life. I noticed ambient effects everywhere in the real world now in every room and in every situation. This is a good thing because now you can begin to understand how these elements are presented to us in the real world and how to manipulate this into the recording environment by replicating what we think we hear in these situations.

Our ability to hear Reverb and delay is apparently a survival mechanism that was implanted into our brain to be able to detect danger. By having two years there can be a difference in the distance a signal has to travel to get to one ear versus the other. This very short time delay gives us the uncanny ability to sense direction. Try this for fun. Sit in a room with your eyes closed and have a friend walk around in circles snapping their fingers or talking.

You will be able to point directly at them in every case. This ability is inborn into our auditory and brain perceptual mechanisms. We don’t have to think about it it’s just there. As an engineer mixing a song, we can begin to think about how to use this ability that is inborn into the human physiology and give the ear various different senses of depth in the mixing process. Of course, simply knowing how the historical human brain uses delay to stay alive in a dangerous world isn’t really going to help you much when it comes to mixing.

You’re going to have to roll up your sleeves and just dive in and experiment with different elements in a mix to get something that you like the sound of. You will notice that I am speaking in general terms and not getting into many specifics when it comes to the use of reverb because you could write an entire book going into detail of every situation.  You simply have to try these things out for yourself. But this starts with being aware of what is really going on when we are listening and also listening to the work of really great engineers and how they apply these elements.

Often, they are applied so subtly, as to go unnoticed. This is where the rubber meets the road. It is not arbitrary that they are using these things subtly in a mix but quite intentional. This comes back 2 the second use of reverb as a subtle depth creation element in a mix as opposed to an effect. One of the tricks that a lot of pro engineer’s use with reverb is the pre-delay setting.

Pre-delay determines how much time passes from the time the initial instrument signal hits the reverb until the Reverb actually starts to generate a sound. This is usually expressed in milliseconds. You can obtain a chart somewhere on the internet that will Express how many milliseconds occur for a quarter note, eighth note, half note, and whole note at various different speeds that your digital workstation is operating at.

So, for example, if you are mixing a song at 120 beats per minute you can then determine how many milliseconds of pre-delay are necessary to put the actual beginning of the reverb signal right on the beat of the song. You’re probably sitting at a computer right now reading this so let’s take a little tour show we. Go find the Aerosmith song Dream On. Have a listen to the reverb on Steve Tyler’s voice. It has a really huge pre-delay which sounds like about a quarter note to my ear. It’s really noticeable towards the latter half of the song when it appears that the engineer is cranking up the effect to make the song More dramatic.

This is a tremendously obvious use of pre-delay. You may not want to use quite this much since this is obviously trying to create an effect of sorts. You may want to use 25 to 50 milliseconds to start out just to see what it does to the signal. The purpose of pre-delay is to still give a sense of depth to the original signal without pulling the original signal completely back into the mix. By having an empty space between the beginning of the sound and the actual reverb event gets the best of both worlds. You get the sense of depth without completely pulling the signal back into the mix sphere.

Another trick you can use for a different effect that is even more natural when it comes to reverb is a combination of delay and Reverb mixed together. You can set up an individual delay and then send that signal into a reverb on a second FX channel and create something that’s far more akin to what we here in the real world. In reality, when we hear reverb we hear a series of what we call Early Reflections would sound like short delays.

These are usually the first instances of the original signal coming off of the nearby walls and hitting our ears. Since these are original signals will generate the most energy they will often sound like short delays. As the signals keep bouncing off of the walls in a repeated fashion they create the signature trailing tail that we know is Reverb. That’s all Reverb really is, in fact, is a decaying series of short delays. Algorithmic Reverb generators don’t do a very good job of replicating these initial delays as well as a natural room does, so you can make this more realistic by sending a delay into a Reverb.

There was one professional mix engineer whose name escapes me right now who stated in an interview that he never ever sends a delay dry but always sends it into a reverb. His reasoning for this is that this is how delay is really perceived in the real world in a room environment or an outdoor environment for that matter.

Give it a try and you will see that it has a very different sense then delay on its own. I don’t want to get into the use of delay so much in this particular article because it deserves an entire article of its own. But, I thought I would point out the use of delay and reverb as a combination since we’re on the subject of Reverb and they are both related. Another issue that needs to be addressed when we are using Reverb is how to EQ it.

This requires a bit of experimentation depending on the mix. Obviously, if we have a large amount of high-end energy in an hour mix and we send that into a reverb it’s going to create a lot of splashy wishy-washy noise as it repeats over and over in the Reverb send. Probably a good idea to roll off some of the high-end either inside the plugins’ interface or with the EQ on the reverb send itself. You can often darken Reverb quite a bit and you will notice that this is common practice if you start to pay attention to certain mix Engineers work in professional settings.

Occasionally, I will use the following trick on the snare. Roll off a whole lot of top and bottom end from the room microphones and focus most of the rooms EQ energy at around 500 Hertz. The snare will get that very Hollow popping decay that is heard on certain types of recordings.

An example of the sound would be the song “She Drives Me Crazy” by the band “Fine Young Cannibals.” Stop right now and go look that song up and you’ll see what I mean by that 500 Hertz room sound on the snare decay. It’s not everybody’s cup of tea and not necessarily applicable to every situation but it does have a unique signature sound and it drives the point home of how Reverb can be used to create effects in special situations.

Link to video

Sometimes in order to get a proper fix on how something is really working for us, we need to look at extreme examples of it to get an idea what the limitations are. One thing you will find as you learn more about mixing and listen to more people is that there seem to be two camps. The one camp are the traditionalists who will try to convince you that there’s some sort of rule book that you have to follow if you want to be a good mix engineer. I agree, with reservations, of course.

I would agree in the sense that removing 400 Hertz from a kick drum is going to make it sound less boxy. And that, I suppose, is a sort of a rule, unless of course, you’re trying to create a boxy sounding Kick Drum for a certain reason. Which brings us to the other camp.

There’s a camp that says just try a whole lot of stuff and see what happens because there are no rules in their opinion. I think it’s safe to say that both of these camps are right for certain situations at certain times. Everybody has decent ears so you need to trust in that and just keep experimenting until your ears tell you something is what you want. It will be an interesting journey and probably one of the hardest things you will ever learn to create a really good mix that you’re proud of.

Often, we are our own worst critics. For this reason, play your mixes for lots of different people and get feedback. You will find the feedback invaluable and get you to see things in a way that you may not have seen them yourself. I repeat, experimentation and adaptation as we learn are really the only true teachers. All I can do is suggest some different things to prompt you and inspire you to take your own path. So go fire up your dog try out some of these tricks for yourself.

I’m going to build out a few YouTube videos illustrating some of the tricks and concepts that I’ve discovered over time and hope that they can inspire you to experiment and try your own ideas. I don’t have them prepared right now, so return back to this article at some point and I will have some for you to refer to.for you to refer to.

Thanks for listening and have a great time experimenting with reverb.